TV viewers in the United Kingdom might have inadvertently learned a corporate ethics lesson during the holiday season.
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In late 2022, the BBC began airing a reality TV gameshow, “The Traitors,” that pits 22 contestants against each other to build up a prize fund. Some participants are faithful and act for the group, while others are secretly traitors who, if they manage to stay undetected, will steal the prize fund.
At the end of each show, the contestants gather to discuss the day’s events and individually vote out the one person who they feel is a traitor. Despite votes being written in an anonymous ballot, the group almost unanimously converges on one or two individuals with no objective reason for such unanimity.
What’s striking about the early rounds of the game is how consistent teamwork equated to the idea of “being on the same page.”
Unfortunately, this urge to conform can lead to unethical behavior, such as being more likely to cheat on a test if individuals believe others around them are also cheating. If the established organizational “social norm” is to bend the rules and be noncompliant, new recruits will pick this up and run with the pack.
Further, if employees have a strong allegiance to their company, they can justify their behavior to themselves. Employees convince themselves it is “for the good of the company” and bend the rules. If these self-justifications are really good, we can show no physiological signs of concern at all when we lie and cheat.
Behavioral scientists term this ability to act unethically for a “just” cause “Unethical Pro-organizational Behavior.” You have probably heard such justifications throughout your career:
“It’s standard business practice.”
“Our competitors are all doing this.”
“The regulator is being unreasonable.”
“It’s only a small rule breach.”
This is our moral disengagement armory we use to put ourselves at ease with our own moral lapses.
Making a change
An unethical culture is hard to turn around. Common approaches to transgression can be to reprimand and/or discipline individuals. However appealing retribution for human error might be, such approaches can have worsening effects on culture. Public censure of staff leads to reluctance to speak up, defensiveness to auditors, and the covering up of mistakes. Rather than learning and improving an organization, blame cultures make unethical behavior more common.
This isn’t an argument for no blame cultures, however. Individual responsibility—especially for misdemeanors such as bullying and harassment—will always be a required conclusion. Retribution to individuals can be an unjust response to pressure to “get results” from an investigation or a consequence of pressure from higher-up organizations to “close this down fast and move on.” Such pressures should be resisted.
Behavioral science literature offers some help in countering unethical corporate cultures. The following are recurring themes:
- Define a meaningful code of conduct specific to your organization and communicate it out consistently. Beware cutting and pasting from documents produced by other organizations. The code needs to speak directly to your people and the organization in which they find themselves. The text needs to be explicit about behavioral expectations and give clear examples of both good and bad behavior. Refer to the code in meetings and at key decision points for the organization.
- Try to shift the social norm toward appropriate behaviors. Communicating the expected positive behavior might not be enough to change a culture. Research has shown fundamental training might have little effect on changing individual behavior. At the point of making significant decisions, clearly stating the social norm will have more effect. Making people feel they are an active participant in a group focused on the common good is a powerful motivator.
- Encourage bystander intervention. Breaking away from conformity and speaking out against culturally accepted noncompliance is difficult for us. An organization will need to make such disclosures easy, done without risk of retribution, and allow room for emotions to be expressed and unpalatable opinions tabled. Protect, a U.K. organization that provides help and advice on establishing effective whistleblowing processes, might be a useful starting point for this difficult organizational journey.
Conformity can be a powerful force for good. If a leader manages to generate a culture of shared goals that generate positive outcomes, it can produce a company with increased productivity and a sense of fulfilment. The same urge to conform can also lead to a toxic culture with an unhealthy atmosphere for employees and customers alike. Whether your career is as a traitor or a faithful, understanding group conformity is essential.
The International Compliance Association is a sister company to Compliance Week. Both organizations are under the umbrella of Wilmington plc.